Philodemus on Censorship, Moral Utility,
and Formalism in Poetry
Heraclitus thought that Homer and Archilochus should be "thrown out of the contests and flogged" (ἐκ τω + ̑ν ἀγώνων ἐκβάλλεϲθαι καὶ ῥαπίζεϲθαι).1 More than four centuries later, the censor with his rod appears again in Philodemus' On Poems. Philodemus objects that the demand for usefulness in a poem ἐκραπίζει, "flogs out" or "expels with the rod," the most beautiful poems.2 In the intervening centuries, Plato had proposed a sweeping program of censorship which would have eliminated most, if not all, of the best loved poems of the Greeks. Plato's influence persisted throughout the Hellenistic period; but it also prompted a strong reaction. A number of literary theorists argued for an emancipation of poetry from morality. Among them were those who demanded complete freedom of thought for the poet.
The Hellenistic debate on the morality of poems is largely lost to us for want of evidence. A basic source of information is, of course, the extant work of the poets themselves. But for details about literary theory we rely mostly on reports by later authors. Perhaps the best known testimony is Eratosthenes' claim, as told by Strabo, that every poet aims to "move the soul" (ψυχαγωγία), not to teach.3 Eratosthenes also held that a poem should not be judged by its thought (διάνοια) and that poetry is permitted to fashion "whatever appears to it appropriate to moving the soul" (ὃ ἂν αὐτῃ + ̑ ϕαίνηταη ψυχαγωγίαϲ οἰκει + ̑ον).4 Other authors reveal more about the context of Eratosthenes' remarks. By far the most informative source on the debate in which Eratosthenes was involved is Philodemus. Although Philodemus' importance has been recognized, his writings have been used only very selectively in the study of Hellenistic literary theory. The main reason for this neglect is that his writings are preserved only in fragmentary papyri. However, much more can be retrieved from____________________